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How did Generation X become the unhealthiest of them all?

·6 min read
Gen X
Gen X

The 1992 second album by Blur was called Modern Life is Rubbish. Thirty years on, data is proving that Damon Albarn was right. His generation and mine, Generation X, is in a right old pickle healthwise.

The academic papers have steadily accrued in recent years, like glasses piling up on a sticky pub table. The most recent is a hefty one, a lifetime study of nearly 8,000 people born in 1970, from University College London. It’s found that one in three people born that year are living with multimorbidities – two or more chronic health conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Prof George Ploubidis, one of the authors of the study, and head of Centre for Longitudinal Studies, reports the news was a shock. His team had expected the figure to be about one in five, or one in four at the most. More concerning were the figures for working class X-ers. For them, nearly half were living with comorbidities by age 50.

It turns out that the generation that thought it could have its cake, and eat it too, isn’t immortal. It’s actually kind of fat, and it has heart problems, chronic drinking issues, backache – and it’s miserable. Things can only get better? Wrong! They got worse. Mentally and physically, we are more unhealthy than both our parents and our grandparents.

We were a generation that reached its untouchable zenith with the Messianic grip and grin of a pre-Iraq Tony Blair double-hand shaking rock stars and supermodels. You can be caring and really rich too! Brilliant! Noel Gallagher of Oasis attended those legendary Nineties’ peak New Labour showbiz dwinkies and subsequently told Russell Brand in a 2008 interview that he’d sniffed coke in the “Queen’s bog” at 10 Downing Street.

Generation X’s musicians were the last wreckers of the genre. They don’t make ’em like Gallagher et al any more. We even had drug-taking violinists (Nigel Kennedy). Our footballers took a leaf from Maradona’s playbook. Yes! You can be an athlete and a caner. Yes! Everyone can be rock ‘n’ roll. Millennials onward are quite different with their sensibilities. A few years ago, lightly teasing my friend’s young son, he felt able to tell me: “You hurt my feelings. You should say sorry.”

Cut back to the Seventies: I recall long car journeys with parents smoking in cars with windows tightly shut (parents smoking is another indicator for later-in-life health issues). Memories include my brother and me lying on the floor of the car under sleeping bags to try to escape an unventilated vehicle where both adults were smoking – one a pipe, at that.

The chef Mark Broadbent, now 54, grew up in Lancashire and had more than second-hand smoke to contend with. He had teachers who punished their pupils not with canes or straps or slippers… “Corporal punishment at my school was a punch in the face,” Broadbent says. “I wet the bed till I was 11 and you might wonder whether a combination of being terrorised by violent Irish Catholic teachers and a fear of a heavy-handed father might just have had something to do with it.”

Child mental health was not “a thing” back then – not for the working classes, like Broadbent’s family. But not for Jonathan Potts, the son of an Oxford-educated Army officer, either, who struggled to eat the slop at his south Devon prep school and was put on the humiliating “fussies” table to be “watched”. His partner, Elaine Foran, remembers anyone who didn’t eat the similarly disgusting spam fritters and lumpy powdered potato at her north London girls’ school being assigned to “the anorexics table”, again to be “watched”. Potts remembers being forced to eat his lunch from a dog bowl in front of the whole school.

Model-turned-naturopath Rosemary Ferguson was part of the actual Cool Britannia crowd, famously spread across several pages of Vanity Fair. This lot were the poster kids of our generation. She married one of the Young British Artists, comic nihilist Jake Chapman, and is chums with a stellar street of famously debauched Nineties A-listers. In her second career in nutrition and functional medicine, many of her clients are X-ers, and, in her experience, three things define their health. “They – we – drink a lot and think this is completely normal. I also think that the overuse of antibiotics and the complete degradation of the microbiome is impacting hard on health in later life. More than that, it’s sugar. We grew up with sugar in everything and balancing out blood sugar levels is one of the main things I deal with.”

Despite being ignored, battered and fed horrible food, we grew up to have a great appetite for fun, “good time all the time”, as the Spinal Tap drummer used to say was his motto. Our parents and grandparents always told us, you can’t have it all. But X-ers of all classes gave it a go. One thing that characterised our culture was the all-or-nothing way, applied to every aspect of our lives. We worked long hours, then got, as the vernacular goes, “Absolutely battered.” We went from the spa to the bar and then back to the spa again. We would “detox to retox”.

This dietary merry-go-round was fed by a culture of “obesogenic” foods (now called ultra high processed or UHP) that exist almost as though purely to sate a desire to get high on sugar, salt and fat rather than actually to nourish. On the other hand, our obsession with endless cranky, unsustainable and extreme weight loss plans also helped drive obesity.

“Generation X was hopefully the last generation,” says Ferguson, “to grow up in a world where physical violence, smoking – literally – while breastfeeding, and mental cruelty to kids were not really scrutinised by the law, the media or by academia.”

Ploubidis’s research shows that poor mental health in childhood doesn’t bode well for a midlife X-er. It says so much about who we are as a generation that as I interviewed contemporaries about our childhood mental health, we found our personal misfortune to be a rich seam of humour whereas younger people might take it far more seriously.

I wonder if all this hedonism was in fact a very public experiment in mass self-medication. The great democratising of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle for the masses, ladette culture, Loaded magazine, ravers necking ecstasy at the weekend, was just Thatcher’s messed-up kids, as Mark Broadbent drily describes it, “methodically numbing away the pain with food, booze and drugs”.

Sounds about right. When I look back, I remember a lot of fun. Indeed, the words “too much fun” among my friends meant we were feeling really low. So although we are going to spend years and years of later life fat and sick and a dreadful drain on the state, at least we didn’t grow up in the time of our recent public health imprisonment or this po-faced culture of moral bullying. There’s got to be a bright side, surely. At least, wheezing and spluttering, we can still have a laugh. Can’t we?